Sven Birkerts writes about Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil and Hunger in the new Bookforum:
A young man’s book, an old man’s book; the former an almost unremitting hallucination, the latter like something carved with patience into an obdurate oak. Hunger unfolds its unbroken inwardness in urban Christiana (now Oslo), “that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him,” over several seasons, though it also delves to touch a timelessness known to most of us only from dreams and illness. Growth of the Soil populates a simple square of rural canvas and fulfills its narration of labor’s travails and hard-won triumphs over many decades. The novel, sharply and sensuously rendered by Sverre Lyngstad, enacts a lifetime’s forward plod, though Hamsun’s strategic moments of omniscient retrospect (“Great changes at Sellanrå”) every so often telescope long years down until they seem but a cosmic eyeblink.
As touched upon in the roundup post I did about the Reviewing Translations panel at the Miami Book Fair International, there are a lot of issues involved when reviewing a translation. Especially related to the hows and whys of commenting on the quality of the translation.
To many, one of the big problems is the reviewer’s inability to read the book in the original. Instead he/she ends up commenting on the English only, complaining about it if it’s too odd (“stilted, awkward rendition”) or if it’s too smooth (“dumbed down for Americans”).
The ability to judge the quality of a translation is something I don’t really want to get into here. Or at least not now. (There’s a big philosophical divide when it comes to this topic, not only in terms of reviewing, but editing as well.)
Over the weekend though, a reader contacted me because she was upset by this post of Ben Ivry’s review of Sverre Lyngstad’s new translation of Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil.
As I mentioned in the post, I haven’t had a chance to read the translation yet—though I really want to—but I did include Ben’s negative comments about the translation.
Personally, I thought his “evidence”—the use of the word “patten,” of “old people’s theriac,” etc.—was interesting, and a valid critique of the translation. (At least it’s clear he read the book and didn’t just use the jacket copy as his review . . .)
It’s only fair to point out some of the other reviews though, all of which are much more positive about the translation, such as the comment in the New Yorker that “Hamsun’s heroic translator, splendidly captures the author’s voice as he guides his large cast into the stresses of the modern age.”
And Julia Keller’s evaluation in the Chicago Tribune:
Thanks to the new translation by Sverre Lyngstad, Hamsun’s novel is a moving and lyrical reading experience, a poetical blend of old and new, of the lasting and the transitory, of the stillness at the world’s core.
Whether or not this is a good translation is still a matter of debate, and not really what I want to focus on. (I assume it’s pretty good with some word choices that some people might disagree with.)
What’s important is that once again, these positive evaluations of the translation are only a few words long—“splendidly,” “moving and lyrical, a poetical blend”—yet as readers we put faith in the reviewer’s viewpoint, despite the fact that neither Keller nor the New Yorker reviewer probably read Norwegian.
I’m probably not the norm when it comes to this, but I like to read reviews that include information about the translation. I just think that if at all possible reviewers should implicitly or explicitly explain their evaluation criteria in their review, especially when talking about retranslations.
People still disagree about the best translation of The Master and Margarita, and it goes without stating that evaluating translations isn’t an objective science. But to make the conversation more interesting, to get people engaged with these books, and to give translators a bit more credit when it comes to evaluating the choices they made, I think it would be best to avoid one-adjective pronouncements, good or bad.
(And yes, I know that I’m totally guilty of this in the Three Percent reviews I write . . .)
Benjamin Ivry has a very interesting piece in today’s New York Sun on the new translation of Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil:
“Growth of the Soil,” one of these later works, tells of a peasant, Isak, and his harelipped wife Inger, who strangles her infant daughter after she is born with her own harelip. Their life is narrated with Olympian disdain, but occasionally a kind of grudging admiration peeps through the irony: “Two lonely people, ill-favored and all too lusty, but a boon to each other, to the animals, and to the earth!” Hamsun juxtaposes scornful comments about Isak’s “dense naiveté” with sibylline observations like “The years pass quickly, do they? Yes, for the one who is growing old.” “Growth of the Soil” is as gloomy as anything written by the Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck, and yet a posturing preface to the new edition by the American poet Brad Leithauser bizarrely likens “Growth of the Soil” to “Robinson Crusoe,” because both books supposedly extol “husbandry.”
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To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of. . .
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